Menifee Residents Fight Back Against Local Criminal Activity

Jo Morris, a volunteer with Menifee Crime Watch, poses with one of the group's patrol cars. De...

Jo Morris, a volunteer with Menifee Crime Watch, poses with one of the group's patrol cars.
Dec. 11, 2012: Kerrie Castor, a resident of the Menifee Lakes community near Wheatfield Park, reports waking up to find the side gate open, a broken lock box on the side of the house and an old house key missing. The next night, a neighbor's car is stolen.

Dec. 26, 2012: A resident of the Menifee Greens community reports that two males with faces covered and wearing dark hoodies approached a neighbor's house. When confronted by the resident, they fled on foot in two different directions.

Jan. 5, 2013: Jorge Garcia, owner of Pizano's Pizza on Bradley Road, finds a window broken at the front of his restaurant. A check of security video shows a young man wearing a hoodie, looking under the counter and checking the empty cash register around 4:40 a.m. Finding no cash, the man leaves without taking anything.

Jan. 7, 2013: Several homes on Potomac Drive in the Sun City area of town are vandalized with spray paint. Anti-law enforcement messages are sprayed on garage doors and other private property.

These are just a few of the criminal acts reported to Menifee 24/7 and/or local police in the last few weeks. Although overall crime statistics for the last month aren't available, there has been an increase in reports to the media by concerned Menifee citizens.

People are nervous. Some are scared. Some have chosen to fight back -- and they're looking for others to join them.

Officer Nina Zalunardo addresses volunteers
from Menifee Crime Watch.
"They are our eyes and ears," said Officer Nina Zalunardo, community service officer for the Riverside County Sheriff's Dept., who works with local Neighborhood Watch and Crime Watch programs. "A couple years ago, we got help from a Neighborhood Watch group that helped us make a drug bust.

"These programs can be a great help, depending on how active they are."

Therein lies the challenge. Although many Neighborhood Watch groups have been formed in Menifee in recent years and warning signs are posted on street corners, not all groups have remained proactive in watching out for criminal activity. Menifee Crime Watch is very active in the Sun City community, where it was formed in 1978, but requires more manpower in order to patrol all parts of Menifee.

Admitting that they do not have the resources to be everywhere at once, local law enforcement officials urge Menifee residents to do their part as volunteers to help spot potential sources of trouble and report them to police. One group is doing just that; about 60 residents of the Heritage Lake community in the northeast part of town met Monday night to re-organize a Neighborhood Watch group that had become inactive.

"We covered what to do and handed out brochures," said Deputy Frank Rice, who helps groups set up and maintain Neighborhood Watch efforts. "I told the people in Heritage Lake they really need four groups, their area is so large.

"I can't say there is more (crime overall) lately, but maybe more in that area. The bad people have found an area where nobody was saying anything when something happened. Well, they are now. Neighborhood Watch is a Godsend."

Rice and Zalunardo also work closely with Menifee Crime Watch -- a group of about 110 volunteers, mostly retired Sun City residents, who conduct daily patrols in vehicles provided by the Sheriff's Department. Volunteers wearing Crime Watch uniforms man a base station in the group's office on Bradley Road, maintaining contact with patrol cars manned by a driver and a passenger, or "observer."

Crime Watch volunteers do not have the authority to perform law enforcement duties. They do, however, provide a valuable service by reporting to police any suspicious activity they see. In some cases, their mere presence on the streets deters crime.

But according to Beverly Collins, president of Menifee Crime Watch, more volunteers are needed in order to keep all five patrol cars on the streets each day. She estimates that a minimum of 125 volunteers would be needed to do so. Even more would be needed if patrols were to be extended into the late-night hours. Right now, patrols are in three-hours shifts from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"We started as Sun City Crime Watch with all retired people as volunteers," Collins said. "We need more volunteers outside the 55+ core area. This is a good opportunity for retired military or even housewives who can give us three hours at a time."

Dick Haynes, a volunteer with Crime Watch, said residents of other sections of Menifee must be willing to partner with Sun City residents in beefing up community patrols.

"People in Menifee think we're just Sun City; we are part of Menifee," Haynes said. "We could use more people and more cars. Right now, we only have enough people to make random checks in the other parts off the city. We don't have steady routes over there like we do in Sun City."

Neighborhood Watch signs like this one
are effective only if residents are
active in supporting the program.
Collins said increased crime prevention presence and awareness is needed in order to deter criminals.

"You can tell people 1,000 times to keep their doors locked and their garage door shut," she said. "Still, they don't think it can happen to them."

Castor, whose home was the victim of vandalism in Menifee Lakes, said she believes crime has increased in the last year. Neighborhood Watch signs are posted in her community, but she is a proponent of more volunteer involvement.

"We have a neighbor who's been here 16 years," she said. "He was just saying that they never had problems until the last year. The thing that agitated me was, they attempted to come in while we were at home."

According to Deputy Rice, criminal activity will be deterred only if more residents volunteer to get involved. Setting up a Neighborhood Watch group involves a series of meetings and the assigning of block captains, who are responsible for taking calls from neighbors about suspicious activity. Once a group is established, it meets with the Sheriff's Department two or three times a year.

The rest of the time, it's up to residents to communicate with each and with the police.

"One individual at a meeting said they had seen sex acts and drug use in the park," Rice said. "I said, 'Did you call us?' The answer was no. But you have to.

"People have the perception that they don't want to bother us. Please call. I can tell you this: Roughly 50 percent of the calls we get, we get something out of that call.

"The neighborhood I grew up in, you knew everybody on the block. Now, nobody knows anybody and they're all afraid to talk to each other. That has to stop."

Rice said anyone seeing suspicious activity may call 911 if they consider it an emergency. For non-emergency notifications, one should call the Sheriff's Dept. at 951-210-1000. Those wishing to request assistance from the Sheriff's Dept. in forming or re-organizing a Neighborhood Watch group may email Officer Nina Zalunardo at or call the department and ask for her.

Those wishing to volunteer their time with Menifee Crime Watch should call 951-679-7031. Applicants must complete an application both with Crime Watch and the Sheriff's Department.

Jo Morris spends most of her volunteer shifts with Menifee Crime Watch serving as the base operator, communicating with cars in the field.


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